A couple of years after I got married, all my friends started having kids, even the ones who didn’t seem super-maternal. Facebook turned into a procession of pregnancy announcement posts, then baby bump shots, then albums of infants in photo-a-month onesies, then videos of first crawls and toddler steps.
I bought cute animal bath towels, decorated onesies with puffy paints and munched pastel-hued M&Ms at occasional baby showers. But most of my friends lived in distant states and cities, so my participation in their pregnancies and new motherhood was predominantly virtual, and Facebook was the preferred platform to announce these milestone life status updates.
I clicked the Like button on these baby photos to show support. My friends were busy, trying to balance new motherhood and sleepless nights, inadequate parental leave and the search for an affordable day care/preschool/nanny, the impossible math of raising a child. I wanted them to know I cared.
Then ads for baby gear and Thinx period panties began popping up in my Facebook feed. Not here or there, but daily. While on their own the period panties were innocuous enough, their constant juxtaposition with baby gear suggested something more sinister. It was as if ― to social media advertisers, if not also the general culture ― women only had value when they bled or when they bred.
I’d never had the urge to hold strangers’ babies, or smell a newborn’s head or make goofy faces at a curious toddler. While I’d tear up at videos of zoo babies or endangered animals, baby humans tended to evoke an opposite response. I didn’t want kids and, as a writer I felt pretty sure I’d resent their endless needs for eating into my creative time. I loved my dogs beyond all reason, but I also loved how I could put them out in the backyard when I needed to concentrate.
I’d found a partner who felt the same way. Whenever strangers asked us when we’d have kids (which, honestly, needs to stop for so many reasons), we said we’d be the cool aunties. We didn’t owe them an explanation, but providing one seemed to smooth things over.
The more people inquired about my womb’s potential occupancy rate ― not if but when being the dominant assumption ― the more my disinclination toward motherhood soured into disdain toward anyone who assumed.
Privately I griped about how ridiculous it was that so many people assumed all women wanted children, and now my targeted ads were doing it, too. I told Facebook the ads weren’t relevant, hoping to stop the cycle. But each day I logged on, I saw ads for Thinx or baby paraphernalia (clothes, baby monitors, baby tech). It reminded me of relatives who kept insisting “You’ll change your mind once you’re older,” as if a child-free life or queerness was a phase, one that would end when I conformed to society’s expectations.
It was easy to tune out print and web abs, but social media advertising felt more insidious. The ads were displayed in my feed, designed to look exactly like the posts I wanted to see. Scrolling for friend updates, I mindlessly absorbed the toxic messaging.
I knew better than the ads. Not all women wanted children. Furthermore, not all women had periods. Not everyone who had a period identified as a woman. The experience that was painted as universal was anything but. I wished I could laugh off the reductionist messaging, but I couldn’t help getting upset, which felt like a personal shortcoming. The binary was bullshit, but here I was, caught up in it all the same.
I toyed with quitting Facebook but worried this would sideline me from my already far-flung friends’ lives. I thought about no longer liking the baby photos ― the probable cause of the ads ― but then I’d be letting the algorithm alter my behavior. That didn’t feel right, either.
If I no longer identified as female, I wondered, would the ads change?
I’d clicked the “F” box when I first signed up for Facebook, back when there were only two options, silently resenting the mandatory gendering.
Female was a shared cultural experience that I related to but couldn’t inhabit exclusively or comfortably. It wasn’t just about kids. I was queer and gender nonconforming. I wore boys’ clothes, gave myself androgynous home haircuts and shaved maybe once a year.
Whenever my cis, straight friends shared anecdotes about their relationships ― for example, reading a boyfriend’s mild possessiveness as proof of love or taking offense if he admitted another woman was nice-looking when she’d asked ― I found their Carrie Bradshaw-style summation of the issues puzzling. Did women really think that way? I’d wonder. Followed by, Thank God I’m gay. My relationships weren’t perfect, but they didn’t operate on the zero-sum logic straight women tended to deploy.
Since I was a teenager, friends had staged interventions encouraging me to look and act like a woman. To shave my legs or wear makeup and feminine clothing instead of baggy pants and A-frame tanks. I’d assimilated because I thought I had to, but there was always something off about my performance of femininity. It didn’t fit.
The trouble was nothing else fit either. I thought for a while I was just butch, feeling euphoric when I did “dude stuff,” like jumping my friend’s beater convertible or wearing men’s briefs. But I was never all that butch. Nor did I want to be a guy.
As my outward appearance moved toward masculine of center, my internal experience of gender inched closer to ambivalence. More than anything, I felt gender free — free of gender and free from it, too.
My Facebook profile still said I was female because I had no positive identification with the other options. They or she, nonbinary or bigender or genderqueer: Nothing felt right. Facebook now offered a custom gender field. Start typing anything you wanted and it would auto-serve relevant suggestions. Gender-noncomforming felt affirming, so I decided that’s what I’d be.
Though I didn’t expect switching my gender on social media to do much other than provide a positive outlet for my frustration, the toxic ads stopped. Overnight.
Instead of baby gear or period panties, I started to see ads for photography courses and tech stuff, aligned with my interests. Thinx may have run a trans-inclusive “people with periods” ad, but its Facebook campaigns didn’t target my new demographic.
To Facebook advertisers, men and gender-free folk were allowed interests and hobbies. Women? They could only have periods or babies.
It may seem like a minor issue, but funneling highly gendered ads toward a target demographic ― like “women of a certain age” ― harms nonbinary, trans or otherwise-identified individuals. Those who don’t fit into tightly prescribed gender roles are reminded of the gulf between their lived realities and society’s standards each time the algorithm plays to tired stereotypes. The ads can trigger dysphoria, too ― one reason why some companies are ditching the pale pinks, blues,and purples long associated with menstrual product packaging.
Reductionist ads like these also hurt cis women. Women who want children but can’t conceive, who lost a pregnancy, who don’t have partners and don’t (or can’t afford to) go it alone via reproductive technology are reminded with each fresh ad that they lack the something they desperately want ― and may conclude they’re “less of a woman” for it.
Opting out of gender came easily to me, and it did the trick. I beat the ad algorithm. But real victory comes when we dismantle gendered advertising for good. The advertisers saw gender-free me as an individual with specific interests and a rich, full life outside of my reproductive capacity. That’s how we should all be seen.